Bird Island Diary — June 2008

30 June, 2008 Bird Island

June has been a busy month on the little rock. After Mays comings and goings we finally settled into winter with just the four of us. Despite the base accommodating up to 12 folk during the summer months the four of us seem to have filled the space and settled in nicely to the slightly less hectic winter routine.

So what’s been happening this month on animal island? Well we finally lost our last summer albatross residents with the last of the grey-head chicks departing by the 15th, leaving the normally bustling colonies eerily quiet. The colonies start to fill again in September when a different seasons birds will return to begin courtship and breeding, as they are biennial, due to there average colony attendance of 239 days, compared to just 200 for the black-browed albatrosses that breed annually. On 2nd we had the monthly all-island wanderer census, a fun job, but this means a long day in the field for all concerned, as there are just the four of us to cover the whole island now and one of us must stay on base at all times for safety reasons. It was a good day for seeing other wildlife with at least 5 snow petrels seen and good numbers of cape petrels, storm petrels and prions around the coast. An RAF Hercules was spotted flying past the island during the day, on route to an exercise on South Georgia.

With this being the official month of midwinter the weather did not disappoint. The temperature began to drop and brash ice from passing icebergs that were breaking up washed into Jordan Cove and allowed pancake ice to form. For a few weeks the ice level in the bay waxed and waned and this also gave the returning leopard seals something to haul out on and hunt amongst. This has meant a good number of leps about earlier than normal with up to 11 on various beaches and bits of ice around the island, this has kept Ewan busy, out photographing them to add to the ID database so that their visits can be tracked over the years. He’s also tagged a few to help with sighting off the island and managed to recover a GLS off one individual, which has show where it has been whilst away from BI. As well as the leopard seals that have been increasing in numbers recently we have also had more elephant seals hauled out around the beaches, as yet, they are all fairly young individuals and we are all looking forward to seeing some of the bigger males coming ashore later in the winter.

Friday 13th was unlucky for some this month as challenged Halley at darts over the web cam. Things were looking bleak for the all male BI team and we were 2-0 down in a best of three games match when the generous Halley team asked if we fancied going for best of five. Foolhardy move on their part as the BI boys battled back and took the lead! Not sure how Halley felt about it after there great start but we are counting it as a win!!

The big event this month, celebrated across all the Antarctic bases was the Mid-winter festivities. All the bases down south try to take some time off over midwinters week to celebrate the shortest day and the slow return of the summer sun. Although not as dramatic here on BI as we have sun from about 11am until 6.30pm even during the height of winter, compared to some of the bases on the Antarctic continent that haven’t seen the sun for months in some cases. Here on Bird Island though it’s any excuse for a celebration and a fine reason to eat more, make some cakes and have a drink or two.

We kicked off our midwinters week with a beer festival on the 14th, tasting a selection of some of the real ales we had stockpiled at the start of the summer. The next day saw us heading out for some fresh air to clear away the cobwebs, Flea and I headed up and over Tonk to take in the view of the icebergs floating serenely by and watch an imposing hail and snow storm racing across the sea to blot out the view, forcing a hasty retreat form the summit, back to base for tea and cakes!

Later in the week, we decided to have a 24hour 24 ‘Bauerthon’ and watched an entire series of Keifer Sutherland saving the world in real time. The 8am start saw us all sitting down with coffee and breakfast but by midnight we were all struggling, but being the valiant stalwarts we are we soldiered on through the night and were glad to see the exciting finale, as much to see what would happen as to see our beds! During the intervals, normal BI life had to carry on and the Lep round was done and Fabrice taught us all Croissant makers, in an attempt to prepare us for his departure at the end of next summer, we can’t survive through the winter months without croissants can we? There are limits beyond which the human body is not meant to go you know!

Thursday saw us all decorating various locations around the base as pubs so that in the evening we could have some games and activities in the different venues. The night kicked off with a drink and some games at the Marina Bar on the end of the jetty. A lovely thought I hear you cry, a balmy summers evening on the jetty, watching the sun go down, but no it was dark so the bar was lit by tilly lamps and –5 outside and snowing hard! Scampi and chips were provided by our eminent host and warmed our insides if not much else! We then moved onto my little venue, the smallest establishment of the evening at the Albatross Wings in the jetty loo! We all managed to squeeze in for a real ale or two and a few games of Pictionary. We soon warmed in the confined space; with seating for two only it was standing room in the bar for most. Then it was onto McEwans Bar in the Dorchester for a dram and hot toddy and some warming stovies. Then it was onto the French Café/bar in the accommodation corridor. There were small tables and benches and various coloured lights illuminating the corridor. We then proceeded to dance the night away and fill up on some delicious crepes produced by Fabrice. A great night was had by all and we all wearily retreated to bed in the early hours of the morning!

There was much furious and furtive work going on throughout the week as secret midwinters presents were made both in the workshop and surreptitiously in people’s rooms, all to get the finished unseen for the big presentation on the 21st.

Midwinters day itself started off in the traditional manner by the BC (Flea) making breakfast for the rest of the base. A sumptuous feast that we were going to need if we were to get through the impending winter games. The first event of the day was crossbow target shooting, trying to hit the large target with various animals depicted on it (see photo). Striking some dubious sharp shooter poses there were various levels and lick and skill, combined with the gusting crosswinds making this an interesting start to the games, with Rex at one point unintentionally wandering onto the range and becoming a potential target. Ewan won the first event, in what was to be a continuing winning streak throughout the contest. This was followed by the Haggis toss, and despite having to throw his native fauna to win, this event was won by me, perhaps because of my time spent in the haggis strongholds of the Orkney Islands, although Flea was doing rather well and managed to get the haggis stuck on the roof of the base on one of his goes! Regular breaks were had between events to warm up and sample French and Scottish recipes of mulled wine and also to sample some mince pies with brandy butter. Welly wanging was the third event, and for those of you not well versed in the vagaries of BI midwinters sports this involves flinging a hefty welly as far as possible, using only your teeth and has to be seen to be believed. There were a number of different techniques employed in the event, possibly relating to the international nature of the contestants. Scotland led in this event too, leaving Ewan in the lead at the end of that event, pipping me at the post after a welly rebound off the back steps set me back! Tossing the caber was the forth event of the day, and as we approached the forth round techniques were being honed and hints and tips exchanged to get the greatest distance. Ewan won again, taking two of the four rounds with another of his national sports! The fifth and final event of the day was snowball target shooting. The conditions were perfect with good sticky snow packing into fine snowballs. After some practise shots and some serious discussions over consistency, size and density of a good ball the competition kicked off. Fabrice taking the first of four rounds, followed by Felice, then myself and then Felice taking the final round of the last event. There were a few anxious minutes as the final scores were totted up, but after Ewans high score on the crossbow event and consistent play through the day he won the games for 2008. Well done Ewan! Now, we would normally go for the traditional midwinters jump in the sea, but due to a very inquisitive leopard seal off the end of the Jetty we decided to give it a miss that day and went straight for the warm hot tub!

After the energetic side of the day it was time to settle in for the evening as the sun went down and settle in to some serious feasting, which is what we do best here on BI, (After the world class biological science of course ;-)!). During the five course extravaganza that carried on until after midnight. We presented each other with the midwinter presents that we had made, (we had decided on who made a present for whom by drawing names out of a hat in May). All the presents were beautifully made and well thought out. Felice received a beautifully crafted game called Oware from Fabrice, an African game of skill. Fabrice received a pair of very fine and cosy slippers from Ewan, Ewan got a game of ‘Hoof Choof’ (a game of strategy for two or four seals) from me, and I was the lucky recipient of a fine hammock from Felice.

The following day we decided to have a barbecue to finish off the week in style, huddling behind some hastily erected shelter at times due to the –5°C temperature and howling winds, unfortunately we couldn’t move the barbecue to a more conducive spot due to the three inches of ice on the beach keeping a firm grasp upon it.

It’s not all play and no work despite what you have just read! Winter is a time of report writing form last season and preparing and ordering in equipment for the next seasons work. This includes indenting everything on base, and I mean everything! So that we know exactly what we have here and what items need to be ordered in to see us through the following 12 months. The outdoor science work still carries on too, albeit at a much reduced level. Ewan carries out a daily observation round for his leopard seals and I carryout weekly checks on the wandering chicks on Wanderer ridge to more closely track their survival. At twice weekly interval I am also carrying out diet sampling work to work out what the chicks are fed over the winter, usually a mix of different squid and fish species but unfortunately there are still a large number of longline hooks turning up in these samples. It’s never a nice thing to see these 65mm long hooks turning up in the food of the young chicks, mostly from discarded bait. Although the number of these is decreasing due to the excellent measures being put in place by the South Georgia government wanderers range over such a huge area of the south ocean that more wide ranging measures are still required if we are to safeguard this magnificent and iconic species.

Well that’s all for now folks, just want to say hi to everybody that knows me back home and love to all Pat, Sylv, Fay, Jamie, Hazel (and Happy Birthday Hazie), Heather and Peedie.

Roll in the long, balmy days of summer